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Behind-the-scenes Philly restaurant disasters diners never knew about

Perhaps diners would better appreciate their foie gras if they understood the fiery hoops the kitchen jumped through to get it to their table.

DIners often are unaware of chaos in the kitchen.
DIners often are unaware of chaos in the kitchen.Read moreCynthia Greer / Staff Illustration (custom credit)

Restaurant dining has long been compared to theater, and just as in show business, there are two parallel yet always distinct realities: what happens in view of spectators and what goes on behind the scenes. The real drama of food service — medical emergencies, breakdowns, floods, locusts — is almost always unknown to diners. As it should be. But perhaps they would better appreciate their foie gras if they understood the fiery hoops the kitchen jumped through to get it to their table.

“Our restaurant is in a 1760s building, so there’s always something to worry about it, whether it’s the sump pump kicking on in the wine cellar or the power going out,” says Andrew Masciangelo, executive chef/partner at Savona in Gulph Mills. “Even when you know a storm is coming, you can never fully plan for power going out.”

In the early 2000s, Savona held a Duckhorn wine dinner for 130 guests. Just after the first course, there was a severe thunderstorm and the restaurant lost power. Although the gas still worked, there was no kitchen exhaust system, which made cooking dangerous. The kitchen staff decided to break the window on a door in the kitchen and insert a box fan. They then ran an extension cord to one of the line cook’s cars, connecting it to an AC adapter. That makeshift hookup did the trick and got the kitchen through the multicourse meal. Meanwhile, staffers filled the restaurant and kitchen with candles, creating a beautiful atmosphere that the guests loved.

These days, Masciangelo is a little better prepared for such events. He has mapped out the nearby suppliers of dry ice so if the restaurant goes dark, he can keep his refrigerators cold overnight.

Even seasoned restaurateurs like Terry McNally of London Grill can be surprised by utility or infrastructure failure. “We’re on a main grid, so we have never had a blackout during a storm in our 30 years, but we have lost power during recent construction. And the water main broke … In those situations, you can’t risk people’s safety — you just close down and accept that you’ll lose business.”

Injuries due to fire or knives are par for the course in professional kitchens, though Masciangelo says there was a time when he was on a first-name basis with the local emergency room doctors.

“There was one New Year’s Eve where we were booked for the night and serving oysters. It got busy in the kitchen, so I decided to help out with the shucking. I ended up with a knife deep in my hand and left through the back door for the hospital,” he says.

Waldemar “Val” Stryjewski of Somo in Manayunk and South Philly remembers working in a basement kitchen in the thick of summer when the kitchen hood broke down. With no exhaust and no return air into the kitchen, it was so hot he had to send cooks outside in shifts. Some had nosebleeds, and the kitchen clock over the dishwashing station actually melted off the wall.

“Another time, I was working with a cook who had a seizure in the middle of service and was taken away on a gurney — the rest of us just kept the service running,” Stryjewski says.

Avoiding or mitigating a crisis takes an experienced leader and a close-knit team that can work in concert to adapt to last-minute changes. A sense of humor always helps. So does the military-style training of earlier generations of kitchens.

“When you’re trained in the old school, you’re used to getting your ass kicked, and you’re not going to have a panic attack when there’s a flood on a Saturday night and you have to call Roto-Rooter while hiding everything from the guests, even though you’re in an open kitchen,” says Alex Hardy from At the Table BYOB in Wayne.

“My early career in fine dining taught me that you are always going to be thrown into bizarre circumstances, like a drain backing up or an alarm going off. You learn to roll with it. Everything still has to be perfect. There is no can’t,” Stryjewski says.

Staff walkouts are a fairly regular occurrence, though the night Stryjewski was left midshift in the kitchen with just a dishwasher after a mass walkout ranks as a memorable one. McNally has gotten used to playing mediator for intra-staff conflict. She recently experienced the particular stress of one server punching another in the face during service — an incident she heard about via her cellphone while on a beach vacation.

“It was a personal altercation, and it happened during brunch, which is the shift everybody hates to work,” she says. “No one eating knew what happened, thankfully. But that was the first time that’s happened.”

Even a minor crisis like a fish order coming five hours late (traffic? emergency truck breakdown? lost order?) can spiral into a bigger disaster if all of those whole fish need to be broken down just as customers are coming in and the order of things gets thrown off.

Then there are the parties that seem to magically double or triple in size between making the reservation and showing up. Stryjewski recalls the morning a party of 44 showed up. A wedding had taken place that weekend and on the weekend schedule was Sunday brunch at the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant had never been notified of the plan. “It was a scramble, and we couldn’t seat everyone together, but we got everyone fed, and I was proud of that.”

Some restaurant moments calling for improvisation are not so much crises as unexpected requests, Stryjewski says. Like the man who would come into the high-end restaurant and request a pasta dish — angel hair with scallops — plus an entire apple pie, neither of which was on the menu. Or the guest who traveled with a stuffed lion wearing a diamond tennis bracelet (the lion, not the guest, though presumably the guest had her own baubles). The lion was given its own seat and the kitchen even prepared it a meal.

“You just have to play along," Stryjewski says. “I’ve cooked for famous people. I’ve made a last-minute coq au vin for the royal family to eat on a plane, but never in my life did I think I’d cook for a stuffed animal.” By the same token, Stryjewski remembers the night Anthony Bourdain walked into his kitchen after a book signing. “I made him Wagyu beef skewers and we talked for a while. That was one of the better surprises I’ve had.”

Restaurant work is not for the faint of heart, the slow of feet, or the easily unsettled.

“At this point, it takes a lot to get me rattled,” Masciangelo says. “I have five kids, so I have been put through the wringer five million times. As long as everybody is healthy and safe, I know I can stay calm.”